Toby Alderweireld and Jan Verthonghen (Tottenham)
Why were Southampton and Tottenham the only serious bidders for Alderweireld last summer? At £11million, the Belgian was an absolute snip.
Verthonghen was certainly chuffed to see his old mate again. He had been severely tested with a series of defensive partners that reads Vlad Chiriches, Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Federico Fazio over recent years but Alderweireld has helped his Belgium team-mate rediscover his best form. The pair provided the foundation for Ajax’s back-to-back Eredivisie triumphs between 2011-2013 and it is not out of the question that they could repeat the trick at White Hart Lane.
Verthonghen’s absence for up to two months may be the biggest test of Spurs’ title credentials, with the break-up of the partnership that has made Mauricio Pochettino’s side the stingiest in the league, having conceded just 19 goals in 23 games. Kevin Wimmer has massive boots to fill.
Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)
The German playmaker has hogged most of the headlines this season – rightly so, having assisted 16 goals this season, seven more than anyone else in the league – but six of those assists teed up Giroud for half of his 12 Premier League goals and the centre-forward must take his fair share of the credit for Arsenal’s impressive campaign so far.
Giroud’s absence for three-quarters of the defeat to Chelsea illustrated how effective he has become for Ozil and the Gunners. The Frenchman’s movement has improved immeasurably over the last year, and it had to. A lack of blistering pace coupled with his previous reluctance to stray beyond the width of the penalty box ‘D’ made him easier to stop but Giroud has started to drag defenders around laterally this season. Rather than occupy the space between centre-halves, Giroud now prefers to try to pull them apart. If they follow, it opens up a channel for the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott to dart into. If they stay, Ozil’s radar will identify an angle for one of his split passes to penetrate between centre-back and full-back. It’s working.
Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo (Watford)
The Watford captain has set up Ighalo as many times as Ozil has assisted Giroud this season and their partnership is a huge factor in Watford occupying a top-half place, despite many predicting a season of struggle.
Similarly, very few forecasted such a bountiful season for Ighalo, despite his 20 goals to help the Hornets secure promotion. Deeney took his time to get going in the Premier League, failing to score in the opening two and a half months of the season, but six goals since have complimented his partner’s haul of 16. Between them, Deeney and Oghalo have notched 22 of their side’s 27 goals and the big boys have taken notice. Over Christmas, Tottenham and Chelsea changed their approach in order to shut out the forwards – both failed to do so – while the vultures are sure to be circling in the summer, even if Quique Sanchez Flores has said it is completely impossible that either will be sold this month for a massive profit.
N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater (Leicester)
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have stolen the limelight for their goalscoring exploits during Leicester’s stunning ascent to the top of the Premier League table, but Kante and Drinkwater’s all-round contribution has provided the platform for the forwards to impress.
Kante has been one of the best buys of the season and another feather in the cap for the Foxes’ scouting department. The industrious midfielder, a £5.6million purchase from Caen in the summer, took no time to settle in England and currently leads the Premier League for interceptions per game (four) and trails only Lucas Leiva for tackles per game.
Drinkwater was labelled ‘the English Pirlo’ by team-mate Christian Fuchs after scoring his first Premier League goal against Stoke on Saturday when he also provided the pass for Vardy to end his seven-game goal drought – one of four assists this season. Roy Hodgson must be making notes.
Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble (West Ham)
The West Ham holding midfielders are another pair whose industry and drive allow their more creative team-mates to concentrate on what they do best.
Noble does what Noble has done for the best part of the last decade for the Hammers. But the captain has taken his performances to a higher level this term, breathing new life into the ‘Noble for England’ campaign that tends to gain momentum every couple of years. Given the central midfielders the 28-year-old has competed with in the past, his exclusion from the international scene has been easy to explain away; that is not necessarily the case now. Noble has reined in his appetite for a crunching tackle, preferring instead to position himself to make an intervention, rather than having to lunge into one.
Kouyate dovetails Noble perfectly, with the Senegal midfielder more capable of closing down space than occupying it. The 25-year-old – subject of a £15million bid from Spurs in the summer – also boasts the stamina to burst forward like Yaya Toure, who struggled against the West Ham pair during the 2-2 draw last weekend.